Living and dying in the shadow of chemical plants

An Alabama community has watched generations of residents suffer from debilitating diseases. Could chemical exposure be to blame?

Ninety-six-year-old Laura Reed Norwood remembers what McIntosh was like before the chemical plants arrived [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Ninety-six-year-old Laura Reed Norwood remembers what McIntosh was like before the chemical plants arrived [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Ninety-six-year-old Laura Reed Norwood remembers what McIntosh was like before the chemical plants arrived [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

McIntosh, Alabama – Andy Lang, dressed all in black and wearing a cap, is on Highway 43, heading to McIntosh High School.

Like Lang, most of the town’s 250 residents graduated from the school and today many are gathering there for the homecoming parade.

As the car heads south towards the school, it passes a turnoff that leads to the sprawling sites of the two chemical and pesticide-producing companies residents say have left a lasting mark on this small community.

Lang, a contract pipefitter who’s worked for the past 30 years maintaining one of the sites and other nearby manufacturing facilities, has lived in this poor, predominantly Black community in Washington County, southern Alabama, his entire life.

Homecoming parade
Many of the town's residents attend the annual homecoming parade [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

At the school - a run-down red brick building with broken windows - Lang makes his way through the crowd. The smell of roasting pork fills the air as fans plugged into portable generators battle the stifling humidity.

Lang seems to know everyone - the alumni tending to the smoking grills on the lawn; the teachers in their T-shirts bearing the school’s purple demon mascot; even the teenagers lounging in lawn chairs. Some of them call him “Mayor”. The nickname suits the 60-year-old, who has been working to gain the community’s trust as he seeks accountability from the chemical companies on their doorstep.

'Across the tracks'

A railway track can be seen with trees on either side
When the chemical companies arrived, residents were forced to move a short distance across the railroad tracks [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
When the chemical companies arrived, residents were forced to move a short distance across the railroad tracks [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

The first two chemical companies - Olin Corporation and Ciba-Geigy Chemical Corporation (now BASF McIntosh) - arrived in the McIntosh area in the early 1950s, attracted by the town’s proximity to a large natural salt dome and transport routes and the prospect of cheap labour from the nearby communities.

There are now 26 chemical plants located along the 69km (43-mile) stretch of Highway 43 from McIntosh to the port city of Mobile. Eight of the plants are within 3.2km (2 miles) of McIntosh.

But McIntosh wasn’t always like this.

Most residents can trace their ancestry to the Lang and Reed families, who owned land in the area as far back as the Reconstruction era, from 1865 to 1877 when the South was rebuilt after the Civil War and the Southern Homestead Act allowed formerly enslaved people to own land.

Seventy-eight-year-old Helen Law remembers what the area was like before the chemical companies arrived. She describes miles of pristine woods thick with vegetation and full of deer, turkey and other wildlife. By the clear waters of the Tombigbee River - its name derived from the Choctaw Nation word for "coffin-maker" - Law and the other children would hunt for crickets to sell to the adults for fishing.

Ninety-six-year-old Laura Reed Norwood, a thin, feisty woman in a brightly-coloured skirt, reminisces about the days when her “daddy could go out to the river with a string and put a piece of fat meat on it and catch their fish for dinner”.

Then, in the late 1940s and early 50s, strangers started to visit the families. Representatives of Olin and those of a white local congressman named Frank Boykin would come by, urging them to sell their land.

Boykin, a wealthy self-made businessman, wanted to attract business interests to McIntosh and, according to many residents, was deceptive in doing so.

Residents recount stories of how their illiterate grandparents were tricked into signing away - often by marking an X as their name - the deeds to hundreds of acres of land for pennies. Boykin would then sell or lease the land to Olin.

One resident tells the story of her grandmother who came home one day with $3 (the equivalent of $38.63 today) wrapped in a handkerchief, believing she had leased her land to the Boykin family. She had, unknowingly, sold all 300 acres (121 hectares) of it.

An elderly woman in a blue top and colourful skirt stands outside a building
Laura Reed Norwood remembers when bass, catfish and bream were plentiful in the Tombigbee River and people could feed their families from the river's bounty [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Some 20 Black families resisted the pressure to sell - for a while. Helen Law’s grandfather, Aaron Adams, was one of those who refused to leave. But eventually, they all gave in.

Cliff Ware says he has waited for years to share the story of how Olin bought his great-grandparents’ riverfront land for “little or nothing” in the 1950s. By the late 1960s, the last piece of land owned by Ware’s family was gone, too. It had belonged to his mother’s second cousin whose husband sold it to a white homebuilder for $2,500 (about $22,000 today).

“He didn’t know what he was doing,” Ware says of his relative. Instead of building homes, the buyer sold the land to Olin, as it continued to expand its plant. Both bemused and indignant, Ware explains that the white homebuilder sold it for “200 times” the price he’d paid for it.

Law understands why the families eventually sold up. Racial discrimination was rife and the residents felt they had no choice but to accept what they were offered. “You just moved,” she says. “We knew we were being taken [advantage of] but couldn’t afford a lawyer to fight, so we took what we could get and went.”

The families were forced to move just a short distance across the railroad tracks. Today, the neighbourhood where Andy Lang and most McIntosh residents live is known as "across the tracks".

'Fog so thick you couldn't see'

boat landing
When the chemical plants arrived, residents noticed changes that concerned them [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
When the chemical plants arrived, residents noticed changes that concerned them [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

In the decades since, the chemical industry has burgeoned in the area, replacing the timber industry and agriculture as the primary way to make a living.

Olin’s chemical manufacturing plant near the banks of the Tombigbee River began producing pesticides, chlorine, caustic soda and sodium hypochlorite. It no longer produces pesticides but continues to produce the other chemicals, using salt from the dome.

Just north of Olin, BASF, formerly Ciba-Geigy Chemical Corporation when it started production in 1952, first produced the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), then later expanded to insecticides, herbicides and additives for laundry products and the plastics industry. BASF currently manufactures chemicals in food packaging, carpet, outdoor furniture and automotive coatings.

Law recalls how, when the plants began operating, she had to start tiptoeing around the reddish-brown seepage in the woods while collecting firewood for the stove. Sometimes, in the morning while walking to catch the school bus, a thick, white chemical cloud enveloped the children. It smelled like chlorine and made it hard to breathe. “We would cough and cough,” she recalls. “The fog would be so thick you couldn’t see.”

Residents smelled acrid odours in the air, saw white dust on the ground and tasted something metallic in the water. They still fished in the river but they felt increasingly concerned about how close the chemical plants were to the Tombigbee.

These concerns have grown since.

Burning lungs and scorch marks

Misc McIntosh
Residents of McIntosh say they cannot afford to relocate [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Residents of McIntosh say they cannot afford to relocate [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

On February 15, 2017, Olin released 738 pounds (335kg) of chlorine into the environment when multiple valves were accidentally left open for about 12 hours during maintenance work. Residents described a strong bleach-like smell and felt their lungs burning.

Some stopped to listen for the alarm signalling a chemical spill, which residents can hear being tested every Wednesday. It never sounded. Neither was the phone hotline or outside broadcast system activated.

Others ran to find rags they could stuff under their doors. They didn't know if they should flee or if this would further expose them. As they sheltered where they could, they saw birds fall from the sky and trees turn brown and die. When they emerged, they found that the chlorine had left black scorch marks on their homes.

Olin
The Olin plant in McIntosh [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

The Alabama Department of Energy Management (ADEM) fined Olin $80,000 for the unauthorised chlorine release and for failing to promptly report it.

Since that 2017 leak, there have been four additional releases from Olin, the latest in January 2022, just 10 months before the homecoming celebration. But these leaks aren’t the residents’ only concerns.

A 'sacrifice zone'

boat landing
A small sign (bottom right) warns of the dangers of consuming fish from the river [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
A small sign (bottom right) warns of the dangers of consuming fish from the river [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

For decades the two companies dumped DDT, mercury and other toxic chemicals in the area.

In the 1980s, the US government created the Superfund programme, which oversees the cleanup of the country’s most dangerous hazardous waste dumps, industrial facilities and mines. In 1984, both Olin and Ciba-Geigy (now BASF) were designated Superfund sites - Olin for mercury (used until 1982 to make chlorine and caustic soda) and other heavy metal contamination in ground and surface water, soil, sediment and plant and animal life, and Ciba-Geigy for DDT contamination of groundwater, soil, sludge and sediment.

Once the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designates an area as a Superfund site, the state environmental agency, in this case ADEM, regulates the company’s compliance with federal safety guidelines, while conducting periodic reviews of the cleanup.

DDT and mercury are “legacy contaminants” or chemicals that are now banned by the EPA but their past contamination can pose an ongoing health risk to communities and wildlife.

Ciba-Geigy, which was acquired by BASF in 2009, dumped toxic waste like DDT into open, unlined pits up until the 1970s, many in the Tombigbee River’s floodplain within the 76-acre (31-hectare) Olin Basin.

During the 1970s, Olin dumped chemicals like mercury and pesticides, including hexachlorobenzene (HCB), into a ditch flowing into the basin, which discharges into the Tombigbee River.

In 2020, the EPA found mercury, HCB and byproducts of DDT in the Olin Basin.

In December 2020, the EPA and the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against Olin and BASF (for Ciba-Geigy’s past contamination before 2009), alleging that they are still failing to protect the local community and wildlife from the legacy chemicals. The lawsuit is based on the EPA’s findings that residual contaminated groundwater was present in the aquifer, which is the primary source of drinking water for McIntosh residents.

A federal judge issued a final consent decree in 2021 [PDF], ordering the two chemical companies to clean up the Olin Basin as part of their Superfund remediation obligations and pay the $13.4 million estimated cleanup cost.

In August 2023, the companies disputed this decree in court. They have yet to reach a settlement with a judge.

Olin
The Olin plant was designated a Superfund site in 1984 [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Michael Hansen, the former executive director of GASP, a non-profit group that works to reduce air pollution and advance environmental justice, says where communities are living near heavy industry, “Cancer is a common occurrence. In addition to that, asthma and other chronic breathing difficulties, heart disease and stroke, difficulty sleeping, nausea and learning impairment for children are common. It can stunt cognitive development as well as respiratory development”.

Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, the government regulates six of the most common pollutants that heavy industry produces. But manufacturing plants that use fossil fuels, like those in McIntosh, create 188 airborne pollutants considered toxic emissions, many of which are carcinogenic, explains Hansen.

“This creates a cumulative impact, and if there’s more than one plant in an area, you start looking at what is called a ‘sacrifice zone’ where residents who live near the vicinity are sacrificed for the sake of industry,” Hansen says.

McIntosh, he says, is one such sacrifice zone.

The fight back

Andy Lang has lived in McIntosh his entire life [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Andy Lang has lived in McIntosh his entire life [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Andy Lang has lived in McIntosh his entire life [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Now, residents are fighting back.

Concerned by continued toxic exposure and encouraged by local television news coverage of the 2017 leak, in 2018, 141 plaintiffs, including Lang, filed suit over that leak. In 2022, more residents filed three other lawsuits against Olin seeking damages over chlorine gas leaks.

Lang has been knocking on neighbours’ doors and encouraging residents to speak up at public meetings about the community’s chronic health issues and safety concerns.

Residents blame the chemical pollution for the high rates of cancer, respiratory illness and other health issues like liver failure and kidney disease that have blighted most McIntosh families for generations.

Misc McIntosh
The McIntosh Community Center [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

They have no proof that these illnesses are directly connected to living in such proximity to the chemical plants - there haven’t yet been any studies researching a possible link between environmental pollutants and illness here (the few studies that have looked at the impact of heavy industry on health have focused on much larger communities in the US). But they are hopeful that a pilot study in McIntosh by The University of Alabama, which began in 2023 and is looking at the effect of exposure to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS (a group of chemicals used in consumer products) on cognitive function in adolescents, will lead to further studies and proof of what they have all long suspected.

In the meantime, Lang urges people to get early screening for breast and prostate cancer and to heed the advisories not to eat mercury-contaminated fish from the Tombigbee River. He also acts as a liaison between his community and The University of Alabama researchers.

As he tells his friend William Abrams, 62, as the crowd lines the highway at the start of the homecoming parade: “It’s time to stand up for McIntosh.”

Entire families lost to cancer

Teddy Lang sisters Lillie Lang-Reed, JoAnn Lang-Adams, Glynda Lang and Castaror Lang-Bell
Andy Lang's sisters (from left to right): Lillie Lang-Reed, JoAnn Lang-Adams, Glynda Lang and Castaror Lang-Bell [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Two of Andy Lang's sisters, Lillie Lang-Reed and JoAnn Lang-Adams [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Wendy Olson is the director of a hospice organisation, a legal nurse consultant and a bioethicist. For the past three years, as a consultant for one of the two firms representing the McIntosh plaintiffs, she has interviewed more than 200 individuals living “across the tracks” and read through thousands of pages of medical records for three generations of families.

They paint a bleak picture: families suffering from breast, prostate and rectal cancers that then metastasise; high rates of kidney disease and failure; and high levels of respiratory conditions such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in adults and children.

“I’ve found entire families that have died from cancer, which starts as one cancer and metastasises into others,” she explains.

Olson has interviewed several mothers whose children were born with respiratory issues. “What mothers ingest is passed on to the baby,” she explains. “If the air, water, and soil are contaminated, this is passed on.”

She has also documented a large number of cardiovascular issues in the adult population and says juvenile diabetes is prevalent.

Speaking in a slow, low voice, Olson explains: “What I’m seeing now is continuous generations of McIntosh residents diagnosed with debilitating and end-of-life diseases which both the parents and grandparents died from.

“A medical record tells a life’s journey and when I read them, I already know what the end is going to be. As the disease progresses, the quality of life is further diminished until the disease kills them.”

Lilly Reed
Andy Lang's sister, Lillie Lang-Reed, shows the medication she takes [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Lang helped build trust between Olson and the community so that she was able to go door to door to meet with the affected families. “When I saw the faces behind the medical records, it was very sobering,” she recalls, her voice catching.

After a pause, she continues: “What struck me was the lack of regard for human life and the suffering they’ve endured.”

She says residents of McIntosh are facing “environmental genocide” and that “unless someone takes responsibility and protects this community and cleans up this community, we will continue to see another generation faced with the same chronic diseases and deaths as their parents and grandparents”.

'Most of those boys are dead or sick'

McIntosh High School
McIntosh High School [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
McIntosh High School [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Back at the homecoming festivities, as trucks carting chemicals lumber down Highway 43, Lang points to a field near the woods. “We had a whole white, salt road there made out of mercury and chlorine. We used to shine our money on it when we were kids,” he says. “We called it the ‘salt road’. We’d get down there and lick it. We didn’t know no better.”

Abrams, who stands beside him, remembers how the company that came to remove the dirt in the 1980s excavated around 10 feet (3 metres) deep before reaching uncontaminated soil.

Homecoming parade
McIntosh's homecoming parade [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

He glances at some teenagers, thinking back to when they were younger. “Remember when we used to swim in what we called the swimming hole? That’s where a lot of mercury’s at. We used to come out as white as that pole,” Abrams says, referring to a nearby rusted flagpole with a faded orange windsock that shows the direction the wind – and occasionally toxic gases – is blowing.

The “swimming hole” was located on Olin’s property.                

“That was chlorine that had that water blue,” Lang explains. “We called it the ‘blue hole.’ We didn’t know no better. Most of those boys dead too. Or sick.”

One of those boys was Abrams’s older brother who died of liver cancer 15 years ago.

Parents worried about their children swimming in the hole. “Your mama beat the devil out of you too. And your daddy. They whooped you all the way home,” Lang says.

Abrams’s laughter quickly fades. He has faced health challenges he doesn’t like to talk about. Shaking his head in resignation, he says: “I’m about dead and gone.”

The first generation

Olin
The Olin plant in McIntosh [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
The Olin plant in McIntosh [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

After the homecoming festivities, Lang points out the passenger side window as he drives towards his neighbourhood. Behind a steel fence topped with barbed wire is an extensive pipeline he helped build a year and a half earlier carrying hydrogen, a byproduct of Olin’s chlorine manufacturing process.

“See that, the salt’s eating it and it’s not being maintained,” he says.

On the other side of the pipeline sits the Olin factory, fenced off with more barbed wire and signs warning of danger. Colossal storage tanks, smokestacks and gleaming metal vats tower against the skyline. Pipes zigzag throughout the plant. Railcars full of chemicals sit for miles along railroad tracks awaiting transport across the country.

Vernon Reed
Vernon Reed started working at Ciba-Geigy in 1967 [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Lang’s father was part of the first generation of locals to work at the plants. Before he began working for Ciba-Geigy in 1954, he worked at a sawmill. Then one day, “A white man from the company told Daddy they were fixing to hire some coloureds to clean the cyanide [used to make pesticides] tanks,” Lang explains. Hoping for better pay, Lang’s father stood outside the gates every day until he was eventually hired. He worked at the plant for 32 years.

Lang’s father worked without adequate protective gear or safety protocols. Every day he’d come home to his wife and 13 children in clothes that had turned red from the chemicals. At the time, Black workers didn’t have access to a shower or changing room at the plant, Lang’s father told him.

Vernon Reed, 74, says when he first started working as a labourer at Ciba-Geigy in 1967, Black people had one small changing stall. Over his 40-year career, Reed worked his way up to become chief operator responsible for mixing chemicals. Even as the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) was created in 1970 to ensure safe working conditions, Reed says white workers resisted integrating Black workers into the larger changing room and showers.

'You pay the price for your daily bread'

Teddy Lang
Andy Lang has been leading efforts to help the community [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Andy Lang has been leading efforts to help the community [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Lang recalls how as a child, when the emissions were thick in the air, “my mother wouldn’t let us go outside”.

“If she let the clothes out too long at night, they’d rot and tear up. Something was eating them up.”

He believes the white dust that covered the ground in the mornings was DDT being manufactured at Ciba-Geigy and at the time sold as bags of white powder. Lang also remembers that paint popped off the siding on houses and roofing tiles dissolved.

He has been surrounded by generations of sickness within his family.

Lang was 12 when he lost his 44-year-old mother to lupus in 1976. She’d been sick his entire childhood with various ailments from lupus to kidney failure. To this day, he’s haunted by watching her slow death. His father died of prostate cancer and lymphoma at the age of 89 when Lang was 49. Lang also lost his 45-year-old sister, who worked at Olin. She had breast, lung and kidney cancer.

Olin
Seven of Andy Lang's eight sisters worked at Olin or Ciba-Geigy [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Seven of his eight sisters worked at Olin or Ciba-Geigy in the cafeteria or housekeeping. His brothers worked for contractors the plants hired for maintenance. Every one of his siblings has experienced significant health issues, including Lang, who suffers from gout, joint problems and hypertension. He has four prescriptions; his sister Lillie has eight, and the rest of the siblings are somewhere in between. He’s currently seeing a kidney specialist for elevated creatinine levels which can lead to kidney failure.

In 2005, Lang’s one-year-old niece who had been born with liver failure had a liver transplant. She died two days later. His family believes that the fish his sister ate from the Tombigbee River while she was growing up and when she was pregnant caused her child’s death.

“We figured we were eating death,” Helen Law says of fishing during her childhood. She has lived and worked in McIntosh her entire life and says, “You pay the price for your daily bread.”

In 1973, Law was hired in Ciba-Geigy’s accounting department, where she worked for 25 years.

“I never thought I’d be employed at the same site that was killing us growing up,” she explains.

But the plants were the only source of jobs for many locals. "It was a blessing to make a decent living in the area [where] we lived,” Law reflects. “But we suffered the consequences of living there because of the exposure all those years and being pushed off our land.”

'I'll be joining my daddy soon'

[Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Dwayne Reed suffers from arthritis and hypertension [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Dwayne Reed suffers from arthritis and hypertension [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Dwayne Reed, 62, is well over 6 feet (183cm) tall. As he sits in a rocking chair on his porch one Saturday morning surrounded by well-tended potted plants, his grandchildren laugh and play in the yard.

His mood is sombre and reflective, and he rarely smiles. Below his shorts, scars from surgeries on both knees zipper down his legs. His elbows, hands and feet jut at odd angles, disfigured from years of arthritis. He also suffers from hypertension and frequently takes steroid shots to reduce swelling in his hands and hips.

He, like Lang, lives “across the tracks”. Their neighbourhood consists of brick and wood houses, some in good condition with porches and colourful flowers, and others abandoned or in severe disrepair. A few double trailers serving as homes are tucked beside the woods. Against the blue sky, pine trees, palmettos and monarch butterflies catch the breeze.

Reed’s father was also part of the first generation of workers at Ciba-Geigy.

“The Blacks were hired to get cyanide out of the buried tanks because the whites were too scared,” Reed says of his father’s generation.

The same plant later hired Reed during the 1980s after he graduated from high school as part of the Superfund site cleanup, work which he said white people also refused to do. He remembers his co-workers were all people of colour.

He didn’t know until he started the job that cyanide was so potent “it eats concrete and rebar”. But even once he’d discovered this, he felt he had no choice but to keep doing the work. “I didn’t want to get fired,” he says.

Dwayne Reed
Dwayne Reed hasn't worked since his knee replacement in 2002 [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Although his work enabled him to give his children a college education, Reed hasn’t worked since his knee replacement in 2002 when he was 40. He believes his joint disfigurement, which began while he was still working, and pain are connected to cleaning up toxic waste. He’s seen countless specialists and takes 10 different medications. His doctor in Mobile told him if he could afford to move Reed from his neighbourhood, he would.

But Reed and other McIntosh residents say they stay because even if they wanted to relocate, they can’t afford to - their properties hold little value. The median price for a home in Alabama is $271,700 but in McIntosh, it is $89,000, according to real estate company Redfin. Land devaluation, according to experts, is common near heavy industry. People trying to sell receive very low offers or none at all due to the proximity of the chemical companies, Lang says.

Their town has just one grocery store, one convenience store, a dozen churches, two discount stores, and 10 businesses, but most residents drive almost an hour to buy their groceries at malls in Mobile or for doctor’s appointments.

“McIntosh is an industrial site,” Lang says. People “call it ‘Chemical City’. All the chemical plants bought up all of the land, so we can’t have nothing here like a shopping mall.”

Rocking slowly, Reed looks towards the distance where the family cemetery is located. His father, who died from lung cancer shortly after his retirement at 66, when Reed was 43, is buried there. Quiet for a moment as the cicadas buzz in the morning heat, he says in a low voice, “I’ll be joining my daddy soon.”

Disabilities and special needs

McIntosh High School
Teachers at McIntosh High School worry that they and their pupils will be exposed in the event of a chemical leak as they have nothing to cover the vents or windows with [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Teachers at McIntosh High School worry that they and their pupils will be exposed in the event of a chemical leak as they have nothing to cover the vents or windows with [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Forty-seven-year-old Lucille Kimble-Foster was a school nurse at McIntosh High School from 2000 to 2005. She is now retired due to health issues she believes are related to living in McIntosh. Like Lang, she advocates for better communication from public officials about community safety.

She says the original county facility for children with disabilities was located at Washington County High School, 41km (26 miles) away, but since so many children from McIntosh had disabilities limiting their speech and mobility, a new facility was built at McIntosh High School while she was a nurse there.

Kimble-Foster worked with 10 children with severe special needs, as well as 40 others with autism, behavioural problems and learning disabilities. She says the majority of the students she assisted came from “across the tracks”, the neighbourhood closest to Olin.

“I’ve always believed these disabilities are related to living next to the chemical companies,” she reflects.

Tracy Broussard
Tracy Broussard's grandmother taught her that 'you grow where you're planted' [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Tracy Broussard, 59, has kind eyes and a quick smile. She grew up in McIntosh, joined the army, and then returned home to coach volleyball at the high school. She has a deep affection for her students and the community and says she understands now what her grandmother always told her, “You grow where you’re planted.”

But she is alarmed that so many of her students have chronic allergies and asthma and “so many children have EpiPens in their book bags”. She has wanted someone to look into the learning disabilities and respiratory difficulties she sees among many of her students.

The possible impact of environmental toxins on adolescent neurocognitive functioning is something that Sharlene Newman, executive director of the Alabama Life Research Institute (ALRI) at the University of Alabama and a cognitive neuroscientist, is just starting to look at as part of the university’s pilot study.

'Sitting ducks'

Teacher Raynard Davis fears a chemical leak [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Teacher Raynard Davis fears a chemical leak [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Teacher Raynard Davis fears a chemical leak [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

The McIntosh community lives in fear of toxic emissions as well as accidental chemical leaks. One woman keeps a packed suitcase by her front door so she can grab it and run if there’s a catastrophic leak.

There are concerns about the salt dome that the high school is built upon and which Olin mines as part of its chemical-making processes. Teachers claim the school is sinking, and worry that extracting salt, like fracking, may cause the ground to collapse.

Near the sport field, a sign reads “Drug Free, Gun Free”, but history teacher Raynard Davis, 62, wonders if the school is also chemical-free.

“I never feel comfortable,” Davis says, clasping his hands tightly. “[In the event of a chemical leak] we are supposed to shelter in place, but we are supposed to be airtight, and we have nothing to cover the vents or windows. We’re sitting ducks.”

McIntosh High School
A sign at McIntosh High School [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

Lang and community advocates have tried unsuccessfully to bring together industry, the EPA, ADEM and The University of Alabama to communicate their concerns.

Many residents feel abandoned and don’t understand why state and federal organisations haven’t initiated a current health assessment or other studies.

After 50 years of studying community exposure to chemicals, Stephen Lester, a toxicologist and the science director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), says it’s virtually impossible, even if an increase in cancer, for example, is found, to link it to environmental toxins with even the best-designed study because there are too many variables. Because it’s so hard to prove cause and effect on health, the federal and local government approach has been to do nothing. But it “needs to take action to protect communities”, he says.

If there are specific health problems associated with certain chemicals, protection could be proactively offered, Lester suggests.

He argues that the government could take a similar approach to communities like McIntosh as it has taken with veterans exposed to toxins like Agent Orange. Since 2010, after a 40-year wait, Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide now associated with 15 diseases, have been eligible for disability compensation.

McIntosh High School
A sign at McIntosh High School [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

BASF spokeswoman Blythe Lamonica said in an email that the company continues “to remediate the legacy contamination at the Ciba-Geigy Superfund site under the oversight of the EPA and ADEM”.

In response to questions about the working conditions for Black employees at Ciba-Giegy, Lamonica said: “BASF took ownership of the McIntosh, Alabama site in 2009 as part of the acquisition of Ciba. We are not able to speak to past operational practices or the claims alleged by individuals who may have worked at the site prior to this date.”

Olin did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the issues raised in this article.

'A little faith'

Andy Lang balances the fear and frustration his community feels with optimism for the future [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Andy Lang balances the fear and frustration his community feels with optimism for the future [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]
Andy Lang balances the fear and frustration his community feels with optimism for the future [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

On a Saturday morning, Lang sits in front of his house wearing a white T-shirt with balloons, the number 12 and the words “Celebrating Christopher’s Birthday” on it.

Christopher is his grandson. Lang’s eyes brighten when he talks about his grandchildren, but also when he discusses the sense of hope felt within the community for the first time in decades. By demanding accountability in court and joining together to speak up at community meetings, he says residents feel more empowered.

The lawsuits, in particular, give Lang optimism. They are all due to be heard in 2024. The lawyers in those cases declined to comment while they are being litigated.

Homecoming parade
Pupils at the homecoming parade. Andy Lang and other residents of McIntosh hope their fight will help younger generations have a better future [Elizabeth DeRamus/Al Jazeera]

But, despite this optimism, Lang says the community still lives with a daily sense of fear and frustration. “We’re angry and worried because while the lawsuits are held up in court by big companies, people are dying and still in danger and no one seems to care,” he says.

He is determined to make a change for his community and for the next generation. “For these kids, if I don’t do something, our history’s going to be gone, but the people are coming together talking,” he says. “We’ve never been this far, but we’re beginning to have a little faith, to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Source: Al Jazeera